There once was a man who was dissatisfied with his life, his work, the social conditions under which he lived—smog, noise, violence, bad weather, whatever—and he dreamed of a better place, not a fantasy place, but a real place. Let’s call that place—Wyoming. The man’s dream was of someday being able to move to Wyoming to live, when he had satisfied all his other obligations, when he had saved up enough money. In the meantime, he spent all his free time studying about this place called Wyoming: he collected maps and books and travel guides. When he came home at night, he would worshipfully pore over his Wyoming lore, tracing his fingers over the maps—road maps, topographical maps, gazetteers; he especially prized the older maps, pioneer maps on aged parchment with lovely calligraphy and artwork. He eventually came to know many of them by heart.
Then, one day, the time came. He was free of his other duties in life and had saved up for the trip. So, he flew to Wyoming, rented a car, and began to drive the countryside. Stopping the car, far out in the country, he pulled out his favorite map and began to look around. But something was wrong. The countryside did not look exactly as the map presented it—no, that stream should be over here; there shouldn’t be a road over there; those mountains were far too big, rugged and inhospitable, and looked impossible to climb. Besides, it was overcast and chilly and drizzling, and in all his beloved pictures Wyoming lay under a big, bright, sunlit sky….
Finally, in frustration, the man shouted into the wind: “Something’s gone terribly wrong with Wyoming!”
Okay, a silly and certainly limited parable, but—
Isn’t that the way we are sometimes with our religions? The world of nature does not fit with how we would like it to be, how we wish it was, how we imagine it once might have been, and once again will be (“a new heaven and a new earth” )? And we perhaps judge the world according to our precious “maps,” and find the “territory” wanting: there is something wrong with the world the way it is—it is fallen, or we are fallen; or the hard realities of the world are some kind of punishment, or test; or it is all just an illusion, an imperfect dream from which we may one day awake to find ourselves in a perfect existence. And we decide that the only way to eventually find ourselves in “paradise” is to stick to our otherworldly maps. And so we try to “live in our maps,” or at least according to our maps, in the face of an unsatisfactory world.
Wouldn’t it be better to face the world squarely, as it is? To try to live with as much passion and joy and serenity—eudaimonia perhaps—as we can? To try to help one another do that?
Note that I am speaking especially of the natural world (the cosmos) as humans live in it; I am not suggesting that we not try to change harmful human behavior, such as eliminating slavery or child prostitution, or whatever. I am just suggesting that we might be better to live fully in the natural world as it is given—following the “watercourse way” of Taoism, for example—rather than speculating from our “maps.”
Or, at the very least, that we judge our “maps” by how they conform to the “territory,” and not the other way around….